When Lariba was growing up in James Town — a coastal neighborhood in Accra, Ghana — they never felt criticized for living the life they wanted to live, they said, even as an LGBTQ person.
Of course, there were certain areas in Accra they couldn’t go, like some religious communities that wouldn’t be friendly to presumed LGBTQ people, said Lariba, who is using a pseudonym for safety reasons. But there were also areas where anyone could go and be themselves, they said, neighborhoods where nobody ever questioned why someone may be dressed in a certain way or behaving in a certain manner.
Now, all that has changed, said Lariba, the executive director and co-founder of gender activist group One Love Sisters Ghana. If someone suspects that you, or someone you’re with, is gay — either from your gait, the way you dress, or who you may be holding hands with — you could be attacked, kidnapped or even lynched.
The shift, according to advocates, is largely due to a new anti-LGBTQ bill making its way through the Ghanaian parliament: “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill.”
Introduced in 2021, this bill not only criminalizes LGBTQ relationships, but also those who support LGBTQ rights, with the possibility of being extended to journalists for what the bill calls “promoting” these issues, too. It also gives citizens a “duty to report,” encouraging people to report suspected LGBTQ people to the police or other authorities — a condition that has been particularly concerning for many people in the country. Though the bill has been in parliament for two years, it is now in its final stages, having just gone through a second reading in July. Unless the president moves to veto the bill when it crosses his desk, many are certain the bill will soon become law.
“All I see is disaster,” said Ghanaian singer Angel Maxine, who is transgender, in an interview with gal-dem in January. “If you live with a queer person, and the bill says you have the right to report them under the bill, then people will use it. And people who have done absolutely nothing wrong will be sent to prison.”
Though the bill has yet to be passed, the effects have been steadily mounting. Anti-LGBTQ content online was already gaining traction in the country in the five years before the bill, according to a report by reproductive justice organization Ipas, and advocates have said that online harassment has only gotten worse. At the same time, reports of physical violence against LGBTQ people have also increased, according to advocacy groups.
In April, four men were allegedly beaten in Kumasi, one of the largest cities in the country, because attackers thought they were gay, according to Rightify Ghana, an LGBTQ rights group. In June, a man reportedly arranged a sexual encounter with another man on Facebook, only to be met by a mob once he arrived. In July, a man was reportedly stabbed multiple times because of his sexual orientation, having been lured to a location via a dating app.
“Now, everything is turned upside down,” Lariba said. “It’s not safe anywhere.”
LGBTQ rights are now viewed as anti-African
Ghana isn’t the only African nation that has seen such a shift. Most countries in Africa criminalize same-sex activity and/or LGBTQ people, but enforcement can vary. In Ghana, for example, even as same-sex relationships were illegal prior to this current bill, LGBTQ centers and groups were still allowed to exist. If the bill passes, their existence will become illegal, too.
What makes this moment distinct is the heavy-handed enforcement.